“Just wanted to inform you that your admission package will be leaving our office tomorrow. I held your package back because I was hoping to include an additional letter. Please see the attachment.”
This was the email that I received from Ed Bustos, director of international admission at Rollins College, while I was waiting to hear back about my early decision application. To my surprise, the attachment was an invitation to participate in the school’s Alfond Scholarship competition, which awards up to 10 admitted students full tuition plus room and board. The competition takes place each year on the Rollins campus in Florida on the last weekend of February, and is based on interviews, class discussions and essay writing.
I had never been outside the borders of my country in my whole life. Even worse – I’ve barely been outside the tiny Kathmandu valley where I live, except for a few times to visit relatives during festivals. Now in a month I was going to go to Florida – all alone – with complete strangers – all alone – to compete for scholarship money that could make or break my college career – all alone.
It was one a.m. when I got the email, and I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night.
After a few days, I got another email with the schedule of the competition, travel arrangements, and some articles that I had to read prior to my arrival. I wasn’t entirely sure at this point what I was meant to do with the reading materials – I thought maybe they were preparation for the class discussions or the essay writing – so I started researching the articles and their authors and made some brief notes for myself.
A month later, after getting my visa from the U.S. embassy, I arrived in Orlando, Florida. K.C., an Alfond student (that’s what Rollins calls someone who has won the scholarship) who is also from Nepal, and who would serve as my mentor, host and interviewer for the competition, picked me up at the airport. In the 15 minutes it took to reach the college, it felt as if I was in a movie. I had never witnessed such clean streets, or roads with no motorbikes on them.
I stayed with K.C. at his frat house the first day, and he took me out on a walk to see the campus. This is what I saw:
After a long day, I suddenly remembered that I was there for the competition, not just to enjoy the greenery! I frantically took out the preparatory materials and the notes I had brought, started reading them, and shortly after that I started panicking. But not for long – the jet lag quickly overtook me and, even though K.C. warned me not to fall asleep, I was gone by five in the afternoon.
The next day we went out to the canteen for breakfast and there I met up with some other international students who were invited for the competition – Renee from China and Yi Lin from Malaysia. We taught each other how to pronounce our names, talked about the education systems in our countries, and shared our college lists and dream colleges. I even tried sushi, for the first time ever, with chopsticks!
After a few hours it was time for business. All the scholarship candidates were gathered around the admissions building. There were around 38 finalists, including four international students. Some of the American students had their parents with them, and I realized I missed my parents so much and wished they could be there.
A tour around the campus
The formal program began with a tour around campus. We went inside the classrooms, the dorms, the gym, and probably just about every building there. I was surprised to see people from the streets just passing through the campus. Where I come from, colleges are like prisons – none in, none out! And I was downright shocked to see people walking around campus barefoot. I’m sure the campus was clean, but back home that could end quite painfully. I was relieved, however, to see that bicycles are popular because I cycle myself.
Finally, after a brief Q&A session about the scholarship came the part that I was dreading, the interviews. Not one interview, but FOUR of them! The first was a class discussion in groups, the second was a group interview, the third (the one I dreaded the most) was a one-on-one interview, and lastly a group interview with current Rollins students.
I was so nervous – for the first time in my life, I was interviewing with people from the other side of the world. What if I said something wrong? What if I misinterpreted what they asked? What if I said something other than what I meant? And on top of the nervousness, I was still half asleep with jetlag. But, surprisingly, once we got started, the more I talked, the less daunting it felt.
In the class discussion we talked about the characters in the articles we had all been assigned to read. It was like a simulated Rollins class with a professor in the middle of a round table, asking us our views about the protagonist of the story, and we each had different viewpoints. Sometimes we agreed, most times we debated, but overall it was a great learning experience.
During the group interview, which was held with another professor, we were asked, “What is an issue you are concerned about?” I was the first one to answer it, and I think I said Illuminati. I’m still not entirely sure where that came from! Others replied with things like global energy, alternative education, community giving.
In my one-one-one interview with a professor and then the group session with current Alfond students, we talked mostly about my interests and why I was interested in Rollins. The professor asked about my academic passion and curiosities, aims and dreams, motivation for applying to Rollins, etc. And the students asked me questions like how I could contribute to Rollins if I got accepted. During the whole interview, I just said what I felt without holding any reservations. I tried my best to be me.
Overall, it was actually fun talking to people from different cultures and places.
The school had planned events for us that night as well – a dinner where I nearly accidentally ate beef (against the religion of a Hindu – it looked like pork at first!), and a trivia contest where I was so tired I literally could not even answer a single question. We were finally taken back to a hotel after the trivia, where I immediately fell asleep.
The competition ended with a breakfast at the college the next morning. All of the competitors, except me, went home. I had my tickets for the next day … at three in the morning! I didn’t get a chance to enjoy my extended stay, however, since I had to go to sleep so early to wake up on time, and the jetlag still hadn’t worn off yet anyway.
Now those few days in Florida feel like a dream, but you know what, dreams really come true. A few weeks after the competition I got an email from Jeffrey Shea, the associate director of admission, which said, “Congratulations!”